The church of Saint Sulpice, located in the 6th arrondissement near the Jardin de Luxembourg in Paris, is a 17th century edifice, built on the site of a 13th century Romanesque chapel. Several years ago it became a major tourist attraction due to a number of intriguing but false historical notes about it published in Dan Brown’s highly imaginary book, The Da Vinci Code. It is a magnificent if heavily baroque structure, soaring to some 34 meters, making it one of France’s most imposing Roman Catholic places of worship. It’s also something of a pre-Vatican II throwback, with its pious statues and a money box, still suspended on a side-pillar, that begs funds “for souls in purgatory.”
For years exterior work on the church has left it partially enveloped in canvas and scaffolding. That hasn’t lessened interest, though, in what many parishioners and tourists most appreciate about it today. That is the two life-sized photographs of the Shroud of Turin (now separated in their niche on the back left by a regrettable piece of “artwork”). The photos show, with remarkable detail, the front and back of the body of a beaten and crucified Jew, almost certainly of the first century A.D. To a great many people, including both Christian and non-Christian specialists, these images depict the crucified body of Jesus of Nazareth.
In a recent update of his decades-long study of the Shroud, Ian Wilson has gathered virtually all the relevant evidence that backs the theory of the Shroud’s authenticity. (More research is needed on the cloth, now in a Spanish cathedral, I believe, that purportedly covered Jesus’ face from the time he was taken down from the cross until he was laid in the tomb and covered, back and front, with the long linen Shroud. This cloth is presumably the “napkin” noted in John 20:7, which the disciple Peter found “rolled up in a place by itself.”)
Wilson’s book is titled simply The Shroud, although it adds the rather sensationalist subtitle, “The 2000-year-old mystery solved” (!). Whether the mystery of the Shroud’s origins has really been solved depends on the reader’s evaluation of the evidence Wilson has marshaled and presented here. I find it thoroughly convincing—at the very least in demonstrating, against a great deal of popular opinion, that the object cannot possibly be a medieval forgery. Details of the image can only be seen with the aid of modern photography and other technologies that no forger in the Middle Ages possessed. The carbon 14 dating done over a decade ago has been shown to be unreliable, and there remain such features as pollen imbedded in the tissue that dates from the first century. In addition, wounds on the body, from the marks on the back and legs to the severe injuries to the scalp, correspond exactly to the descriptions given by the Gospels of the beating Jesus received at his trial, of the crown (or cap) of thorns, of the damage done to his back and face by bearing and falling with the patibulum (the crossbar to which he was nailed), and of the way he was crucified.
There is no point in rehearsing here the evidence Wilson has gathered. I am in no way a specialist in the field and was not even able to view the Shroud at its latest exhibition in Turin a few months ago. I simply want to say something about the impression I have had viewing those life-sized photos at the church of Saint Sulpice.
Outside of tourist season in Paris, St Sulpice is a rather quiet, peaceful place to spend time and to pray. At the entrance you make your way past several beggars, whose outstretched hands already place the steps in a “gospel” framework (“Freely you have received…”). Enter through the heavy wooden doors, pass behind the iron barrier, beyond which are hundreds of straight-backed wooden chairs, and in the center make the sign of the cross before the altar. Move back to the right side, then down to the front chapel, dedicated, as is the custom, to the Virgin Mary, and spend a few moments gazing at her lovely statue hovering above. Continue circling the church, passing by side-altars with murals by Delacroix, and spend some time examining the famous gnomon and the several outstanding organs. Then come to the alcove in the back that holds those remarkable photographs of the Shroud.
A worn wooden bench along the right hand side permits you to sit, more or less comfortably, and contemplate those images. People come by, singly or in small groups. They pause, read the description posted in several languages, then move on. Some stay a little longer to pray.
In that atmosphere, before those images, the mystery of the Shroud takes on new dimensions. The sharpness of the details places you almost forcefully at the scene—first of Jesus’ trial, with the beating by the bone-tipped whip that dug deep gashes into his flesh. Marks on the shoulders and legs, the apparently broken nose, and the trails of blood on the forehead (forming a number 3…) all bear witness to the agony experienced along the way to Golgotha, including the falls that prompted the soldiers to summon Simon of Cyrene to carry the patibulum in Jesus’ stead. Then there is the crucifixion itself, perhaps the most tormenting and horrible form of execution ever devised. This reliving of those tragic moments finally brings you to the burial itself, with the crucified body being “wrapped in a linen shroud and laid in a new tomb.”
Most touching and most impressive of all is that face. Beyond the agony, the desperation and the exhaustion there is extraordinary dignity, solemnity and beauty. Iconologists would study that face and come to the realization that it is the prototype of all icons of Christ from the fourth century on, when the Shroud was rediscovered and revered for what it is. Images of the beardless Jesus, found in the catacombs and elsewhere, gave way at that time to this face, this remarkable image of the Crucified One.
Sitting on that hard bench for long minutes or for an hour or more, you lose all sense of time and place. This has become sacred time, sacred space, because of the proximity, the intimate closeness, of the one whose image speaks in a language of love, compassion and infinite mercy.
There is no absolute proof of anything regarding the origin of this cloth or the way in which the imprint was made. But in the blessed quiet of that place, there can be little doubt that this Shroud reveals not just a human form. It is not just a relic from the distant past. To pray before it gives the surest proof one could ask for that this image is truly that of our crucified and risen Lord, and that this cloth is nothing less than the original icon “not made by human hands.”